"Economic Development and the Environment"
on the Sakhalin Offshore Oil and Gas Fields II

Copyright (C) 1999 by Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University.
All rights reserved

Oil Spills: Lessons from Alaska for Sakhalin

Rick Steiner

Summary of Potential Impacts
A general overview of potential environmental impacts of offshore oil and gas development off Sakhalin is useful in order to understand the full scope of effects on the environment. The Environmental Protection section of the EIA for the Sakhalin II Project contains an overview of some potential impacts off Sakhalin. The environmental impacts can be either those chronic impacts expected from normal operations, or those acute impacts from serious accidents.
Chronic Impacts Expected from Normal Operations
In general, Sakhalin Energy suggests that direct environmental impacts associated with project implementation include withdrawal of oil, gas, and condensate; introduction of chemicals, noise and vibration; solid and liquid sanitary and production waste; and habitat effects. Pollution introduced into surrounding waters will come mostly from drilling wastes, which include spent mud and cuttings, cementing waste, produced fluids, process water, drainage wastewater, etc.
Impacts from the construction & installation phase of the project can include increased water column turbidity from dredging; disturbance of sea bed areas in preparing platform foundation; avoidance of the area by marine wildlife, including fish and marine mammals, arising from construction noise, vibration and the presence of erected facilities; exclusion of commercial fishing and shipping operations from the immediate area; air emissions associated with vessel and construction equipment; wastewater discharges; habitat alteration; and accidents and upset conditions such as fuel spills and vessel collisions.
Impacts from the drilling & production phase - include discharges from the Molikpaq, the Floating Storage & Offloading (FSO) Unit and vessels including crude oil, discharge of 5,000 barrels/day (675 tons) of drilling fluids and produced water; operation and maintenance activities such as pipe cleaning and equipment washing; drilling activities such as shipment of drilling mud constituents, mud preparation, cuttings handling, etc.; air emissions from Molikpaq, the FSO, and vessels; and marine habitat loss due to placement of the pipeline and Molikpaq, and from noise, vibration and physical presence of structures offshore; and accidental spills from Molikpaq and the subsea pipelines, operational accidents, and vessel collisions.
The largest intentional discharges are expected to be the large volume discharge of produced water and drilling fluids and cuttings. Produced water consists primarily of relatively warm water (60 degrees F) from the oil reservoir, containing dissolved and dispersed oils, high salt concentrations, heavy metals, and no oxygen. The project is expected to discharge the 5,000 barrels/day of wastewater at a depth of 5 meters, which SEIC states should be sufficiently diluted within the 500 meter mixing zone around the platform to meet Russian water quality standards - 29 mg/L oil with a daily maximum of 42 mg/L. It should be pointed out, however, that these levels are toxic to a number of marine organisms. And, as the industry is fond of pointing out, many marine organisms are actually attracted to offshore rigs, thus putting them inside the mixing zone within which they are exposed to much higher, toxic levels of various pollutants. That SEIC will be monitoring the sediment throughout the project is good, but a realistic picture of ecosystem effects would require the monitoring of toxicant levels in marine organisms as well.
Of greater concern is disposal of drilling fluids and cuttings. The drilling muds are chemically complex, formulated fluids circulated into the bore hole to control temperatures and pressures, to cool and lubricate the drill bit, and to remove drill cuttings from the bore hole. The cuttings are small fragments of subsurface rock that break and are incorporated into the drilling mud. The muds consist of various chemicals, including weighting agents (barites), gelling and deflocculating agents (bentonite clays), deflocculants and filtration control agents, pH and ion-control substances, bactericides, corrosion inhibitors, lubricants, and defoaming agents.
Of the four disposal methods possible - overboard marine discharge, shore disposal, injection, disposal in Molikpaq's core - SEIC has chosen the easiest, cheapest, and unfortunately the most environmentally damaging method - overboard marine discharge. They state that overboard discharge will result in "limited, short-term environmental impact in the immediate vicinity of the platform...due to physical smothering and short-term oxygen demand." They assert that "there is not a suitable receiving formation into which Molikpaq's wastes could be injected." This assertion should be independently verified.
The only area in the U.S. where the oil industry is allowed to discharge drilling muds and cuttings into the marine environment is in Cook Inlet, Alaska, where some of the strongest tidal flushing in the world is found (10 meter tides). Just this month however, environmental groups filed a lawsuit seeking to close the marine discharge option in Cook Inlet based on concerns of toxic contamination. A recent study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found cadmium, which is one of the heavy metals found in drilling muds and cuttings, in several marine invertebrates used for subsistence foods.
While drilling muds from the Molikpaq will be reused to some extent, normal drilling operations are expected to intermittently discharge into the marine environment from 80 - 160 cubic meters of drilling muds/hr., in 1 - 2 hour periods. Ultimately, about half (2,000 cubic meters) of all the drilling mud and all (5,300 cubic meters) of the drill cuttings from the project will be discharged into the sea. SEIC states that this will cause turbidity from sediment load suspension and increased heavy metal pollution from weighting agents and clays. Heavy metals known to be elevated by drilling mud disposal include mercury, lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic, and chromium, many of which are known to bio-accumulate to toxic levels in the food chain. Also, there is evidently little consideration given to the potential introduction of exotic marine species from shuttle tankers deballasting before loading at the FSO.
The company suggests that most of the operational impacts discussed would be short-lived, very localized and thus of little environmental consequence. This is doubtful and should be confirmed or refuted in independent analysis. Furthermore, Sakhalin Energy has not conducted a cumulative impact assessment, which is required in the United States. Federal law in the U.S. requires that environmental impact analyses for Outer Continental Shelf oil development include all "Past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions or activities." This is to include not only past, present, and potential future oil and gas activities in the area, but also all "non-OCS" activities. Non-OCS activities include such things as dredging and marine disposal of dredge wastes, municipal wastes, radioactive wastes, obsolete munitions, industrial and municipal wastes; coastal and community development which alter coastal hydrology, reduce wetlands, logging of coastal forests; commercial fisheries; other non-energy mineral development; and other transportation of oil and gas through the region. Such an analysis for Sakhalin and the Sea of Okhotsk should be conducted to get a complete, synoptic picture of how impacts of the oil and gas projects will add to other overall ecosystem impacts. The impacts of the Sakhalin-II project cannot be adequately assessed in isolation from the other offshore oil and gas projects (Sakhalin I - VI), and other human activities in and around the Sea of Okhotsk. SEIC representatives stated publicly (at the SRC Symposium) their agreement with the need for a cumulative impact assessment in the region.
Acute Impacts from Serious Accidents
Of far greater concern than the chronic, operational impacts of the project as discussed above is the real threat of a catastrophic accident - structural failure; blowouts; and process system "upsets" such as fires and explosions. History shows that catastrophic failure of complex human-machine systems can result from relatively small system anomalies. Structural failure of the Molikpaq, the offshore pipeline, the FSO or the Single Anchor Leg Mooring (SALM) buoy could be caused by seismic events, extreme seas, sea ice, corrosion, steel failure, etc. Well blowouts can occur as a result of overpressurization, and could release significant quantities of oil into the marine environment, as could explosions/fires in the system. While the company suggests that several design criteria will be incorporated into the system to prevent such catastrophic failures, they give little specificity regarding such criteria. For instance, they suggest that hazard analyses "will be conducted" and other criteria "will be developed," but do not further elucidate the details of such important components as the emergency shutdown system, the design criteria for the emergency depressurization system, the criteria for the fire suppression system on Molikpaq and the FSO, the structural integrity of Molikpaq, etc. Such emergency systems should be examined independently, and the company must strive to satisfy government and people of Sakhalin that the most stringent safeguards have been incorporated. These are all very real threats, and should be of great concern in Russia and downstream in Japan.